Emma Pildes grew up going to the movies at the Davis Theater. She was there again on Thursday evening, but this time it was her film projected on the big screen at the Lincoln Square cinema.
“There are a lot of people I know in this room,” Pildes said almost in disbelief as she took the podium to address the sold-out theater before the screening of The Janes, which she co-directed.
The room of mostly women brimmed with excitement and anticipation for the hometown premiere of the documentary that tells the deeply Chicago story about a group of women in the late ’60s and early ’70s who helped more than 11,000 people access abortions before Roe v. Wade became law in 1973. The underground group was known as the Jane Collective.
As a student at the University of Chicago in the ’60s, Heather Booth began connecting people seeking abortions with health care providers willing to assist. As the demand grew, so did her efforts.
She eventually founded the collective and, along with her fellow “Janes,” is the star of the film that chronicles the group’s clandestine efforts to help women in a pre-Roe world. They were also the stars Thursday night at the screening that kicked off the local Doc10 film festival, which will run throughout the weekend and screen 10 documentary films in total.
The Janes, which has been making the film festival rounds before it hits HBO on June 8, attracted Doc10’s largest crowd to date. Booth attended the screening along with nine other original Janes. They were met with immense admiration and gratitude from attendees.
But a current of anger ran through the evening’s celebratory atmosphere. Earlier this month on May 2 — almost 50 years to the day after the Janes were arrested on May 3, 1972, for providing illegal abortions — a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court suggested Roe could soon be overturned.
The members of the Jane Collective attended Thursday’s screening to view the film and answer questions from the audience in a post-show forum. But their presence also implied a generational passing of the torch.
“We need to get out of the way,” said Marie Leaner, a “Jane” who is now 80 and has worked on social justice issues in Chicago since she was a kid growing up in Washington Park.
“I’m someone who’s the same age as they were when they took on such an enormous responsibility, which is just so extremely inspirational,” said Kati Heller, who will soon graduate from the same university where Booth first formed the collective. “Just seeing what normal people can do inspires a lot of hope that we can enact change.”
During a post-film Q&A when the Janes took the stage, Heller raised her hand to ask them a two-part question. First, did she have their permission to hang their mugshots from the day when they were busted in her apartment? That one was met with laughter and a green light from the Janes on her decor choice. But she also wanted to know their advice on mobilizing people in her life to defend abortion access. Here, one of the Janes, Judith Arcana, passed along some motherly sort of wisdom, assuring Heller that “you really know what to do already.”
Inspiration was in no short supply at the buzzing premiere, but the tenuous future of Roe also loomed large.
Heller’s friend Alison Gill, also a student at UChicago, said she cried the night the news of the leaked opinion broke, and she wasn’t the only one. Hannah Kreischer, a 23-year-old who lives in Lake View East, left a social gathering that night to walk home and process the news. She went to Thursday’s screening with Jessica Droeger, who said she screamed into a pillow when she heard.
Droeger, a lawyer who has two daughters in their early 20s, said rolling back abortion access feels like an attack on her children.
“I have that mama bear feeling and I’m so angry, so it’s important to show up and be here, do the work and to support young people whose lives are really being affected by this,” said Droeger, who lives in Lincoln Square.
In her 20s, Droeger volunteered with reproductive rights groups, but as a young law student, she started to feel confident about Roe’s place as settled precedent. Since reading Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion, Droeger said the reverence she once felt for the high court has been erased.
“I literally feel like I’m in a whirlpool right now, being sucked down into this whirlpool because how can this be the law that I respected, the court that I respected when I was in law school?” she said.
Droeger described a feeling of loss of control that others in the room echoed.
“I’m a child of the ’60s and we thought we could change the world,” said Esther Fishman of North Center. “Now I feel like you have no control whatsoever.”
A few rows back, Jackie Taylor sat with her longtime friend Ginny Sykes. Taylor, the prominent Chicago actress, director and theater producer said she is disappointed but not surprised by the Supreme Court news.
“We’re in a disgusting period of history right now. It was sad, but being African American in this country, it’s par for the course. Oppression in America is for women, for Blacks and for people who are different than the white male majority,” said Taylor, the founder of the esteemed Black Ensemble Theater, which has been a cultural staple in Chicago for nearly 50 years.
Taylor and Sykes said they went to the screening to show solidarity and to be with “like-minded individuals,” which they certainly were, but she said that alone is not enough. Taylor said she hopes the fanfare “turns into something.”
“We need to use this to motivate voting for legislators that will help protect what rights we still have in Illinois,” Sykes added.
Throughout the film the highly engaged audience laughed, booed and gasped as the story unfolded. After the credits rolled and the house lights came up, Heather Booth stood from her seat and asked the packed theater, “Are you ready to organize?”
The answer was a roar of cheers and applause.
Info: Doc10 Film Festival, which WBEZ is a sponsor of, runs through Sunday at the Davis Theater (4614 N. Lincoln Ave.) and Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State St.).
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.